2003: A Beer Odyssey

I recently went to Europe for the first time in my life. My close friends Marty and Michelle live in Stuttgart, so I figured this would be a cheap -- I mean, ideal -- time to go.

When I told people that I was going to Germany, some of them asked me if I spoke German. I didn’t. However, I did pick up a little German while I was there. Unfortunately she wouldn’t fit in my luggage. Ha ha. But seriously, before I went to Germany, I knew only one German sentence: “Ein bier, bitte” (“One beer, please”). During my trip I learned a plethora of new phrases, such as “Zwei bier, bitte” (“Two beers, please”).

Some people said, “Why are you going over there? You’re Jewish! Your ancestors fled Europe to escape persecution!” That’s true. To this day Europe still has a lot of ignorant, arrogant assholes who hate Jews and anyone who is different from them. But enough about France.

I checked the Web for low airfares. Did you know that there’s a Ransom Airlines? Ransom! What the hell are they thinking? Do they want to limit their clientele to terrorists? There’s also an Aer Lingus (heh heh). I found the lowest fare on British Airways. Well, the lowest coach airfare ($580). For a mere $7,000 I could’ve flown first class. For that much money, I’d expect unlimited Dom Perignon, six meals and three hookers.

British Airways allows only one carry-on weighing no more than 6 kilos (13.2 pounds). This sucks for people like me who hate to check luggage. I felt like telling the airline, “It’s only because moron baggage handlers crush and lose luggage that I have to overstuff my carry-on to begin with!” So I packed only the bare essentials: socks, toothbrush, underwear and KY Jelly. Also a 35mm camera that my wife insisted I take. She wouldn’t let me take her digital camera because if the plane crashed, she’d be out a $400 gadget.

I traveled with another close friend, Mike, which was fortunate because he has a good sense of direction. I get completely lost while trying to navigate my way through airports. If it weren’t for him I probably would have ended up in Uruguay.

Our primary reason for travelling was beer. We love good homebrew and microbrew, so we thought we’d take a pilgrimage to Europe in order to visit some breweries. One of the world’s biggest misperceptions is that Germany makes the best beer. It does not. Oh sure, German beer is better than Bud/Coors/Miller, but so is my urine. The most flavorful, unique brews in the world come from a country just to Germany’s left: Belgium. So we planned to visit Belgium for a few days before spending the rest of our vacation in Germany.

The Flight to Europe

We had been told to arrive at the airport 2½ hours early for security and check-in procedures. We did as we were told, and it took only 52 minutes for the airport employees to check us in and ruin my film in the X-ray machine. We had an hour and a half to kill before taking off. Since our primary reason for travel was beer, we ambled over to a stand selling Samuel Adams. They wanted $6.29 for a single 12-ounce bottle, which would have been reasonable if it came with a hand job, so we decided not to patronize them. It was interesting that we had been checked by 9 guards, taken our shoes off and gone through a metal detector, and our reward was that we were then entitled to pay more for beer than they charge at PSINET Stadium.

After boarding, the airline crew thoughtfully told us to fasten our seatbelts, as though that’ll protect you when you crash into the Atlantic at 800 mph. The television screens gave us helpful hints on what to do while in flight, such as sleep, periodically move around, and get drunk. They also showed the amenities and comforts offered in first class, as if to say, “You see? If you weren’t so cheap, you could be enjoying this!” Surprisingly, one of the beers offered on the flight was a Belgian beer called Stella Artois, which, according to the can, is a “premium continental lager”. Well, apparently “continental” is a Belgian word for “tasteless”, because the only thing that made it taste better than Schlitz was its lack of metallic tang. From this experience we learned that even the Belgians can make swill. But of course it would be unfair to infer that this particular brand represented all Belgian brews; after all, any beer served to tourists has to lack flavor, because that is what they expect.

In the airport, Mike had wisely bought a couple of neck pillows, which are shaped like public toilet seats. They allow you to sleep with your head on your shoulder at a slight angle. Without such a device, your head ends up tilted at about 90 degrees (and we all know how comfortable that is). The airline provided us with eye masks to filter out light. Unfortunately, I am incapable of sleeping on a plane, mainly because coach seating forces me to remain seated upright. I spent about an hour trying to sleep, wearing my eye mask, sitting in an uncomfortable position, with a neck immobilizer and an unsettled gut caused by a meal that had been rejected by the School Lunch Program. I felt like an Iraqi hostage.

We landed at Heathrow Airport (in London) and had a 3-hour layover, which was good since we spent much of that time walking and taking buses to our connecting terminal and I got a chance to walk off my sciatica pain. The first thing I noticed about Heathrow was the cigarette smoke. (Smoking is allowed just about everywhere in Europe, as opposed to the U.S. where smoking has been banned in most indoor public places. It’s one of the good things that the politically-correct, bleeding-heart liberals have done for us.) Lots of Middle-Eastern-looking people worked there, and this lessened the anxiety I experienced when I saw Middle-Eastern passengers. Everything was expensive. They also ripped you off at the currency exchange counter. For example, they charged $1.72 for a pound (?), but they’d only give you $1.55 for a pound. Plus they charged a commission. Mike spent $5.00 for ?2.35, which worked out to about $2.12 per pound. I think the currency exchange is run by Enron.

Preliminary Beer Drinking

Our friend Marty met us in Frankfurt as we landed on Monday September 22, whereupon we went almost immediately to the nearest airport bar and each had half a liter of Schöfferhofer Hefeweizen. The only style of German beer I like is hefeweizen, and this one was fairly good, but of course it was only a prelude to the beer we were looking forward to.

We set out towards Belgium on a gorgeous, sunny, 80-degree afternoon, enjoying the pretty countryside and listening to 80s rock CDs. The beer worked its way through me and formed an uncomfortable alliance with the safety belt that fit snugly across my bladder. We stopped a few times to water the grass along the Autobahn and also to get gas for a mere $4 a gallon. They have Esso stations out there. If you’re an old geezer like me, you remember back in the early 70s when, here in the States, Esso became Exxon.

We stopped in a little town called Kastellaun. Like many European towns, it is very small and quaint and has cobblestone streets. It has a restaurant called Lover’sLane Bistro whose awning proudly displays a Web site: www.firefuckers-wechsel.de. We ducked into a little café/magazine stand as it started to thunderstorm and ordered four kinds of beer. Maisel’s Kristall Weisse was light and refreshing. Maisel’s Original Weisse was the classic style of hefeweizen, with more tartness and body. Maisel’s Dunkel Weisse was caramelly and roasty. Königsbacher Pils was a true-to-style pilsner: light in malt and somewhat hoppy. On our way out of town just before sunset we found the remains of a German prince’s castle called Burg Kastellaun (Europe is festooned with old castles). We pulled over and ran around the place in the rain, taking pictures and climbing the stairs and looking out over the town.

We drove on to another quaint, cobblestoned town called Zell. It is full of old buildings and surrounded with vineyards on steep mountainsides. We had a few beers at a hole in the wall called Ferienwohnurgen that had a nice wooden interior. Bitburger Pils, the everyday beer of Deutschland (Bitburger is to them what Budweiser is to us), was very light but still better than Budweiser. Kapuziner Weisbier was a fairly good hefeweizen.

By the way, we learned a few things about European bar/restaurant culture. They make every effort to serve your beer in a glass that’s engraved with the beer’s name or the brewery’s logo, and will apologize if they don’t have the correct glass. A lot of bars play American music, especially the 70s and 80s vintage. A 50-cent tip per person is all that’s expected, regardless of how much beer or food you order (just perfect for a cheap Jew like me).

We had dinner at an Italian restaurant. Of course. We’re in Germany, so naturally we’re gonna eat Italian food. We ordered Karlsberg Pils, which was quite light but had a hoppy aftertaste. When I went to find a bathroom, the doors were marked “herren” and “damen”, which I assumed meant “men” and “women”, respectively. So I whipped out my herrenbone and took a leak. I didn’t have to go Number Two, though. I guess you could say I was farfrompoopen. After dinner we checked into a nice and expensive hotel called ZumGrünen Kranz, which had a sauna, a small pool and a tanning bed.

Tuesday morning we drove out of Zell along the Mosel River, which is one of the most famous German wine-growing regions. The vineyards and trees on the mountains are a beautiful sight. We stopped in a town called Trier which had some Roman ruins. Porta Nigra (Black Gate) is 1800 years old. There is also a church that sits on a foundation from old Roman construction; the church itself was built on top of the foundation centuries later during the Holy Roman Empire. It is very large and elaborate inside. You know, a lot of people think it’s really cool to walk around Europe toting a camera and spend the better part of their day using frantic hand gestures to get irritated locals to snap pictures of them in front of ancient churches. Well, we were there to drink beer, so we soon left Trier and drove through Luxembourg to Belgium.

48 Hours in Belgium

Soon after entering the southeast corner of Belgium we went to a town called Rulles to visit Brasserie de Rulles (“brasserie” is French for “brewery”). The brewer, Gregory Verhelst, was too busy when we got there to give us a tour right away, but he said he’d be ready in about an hour.

We asked if there was a nearby pub that served his beer. He said that there used to be but a fire had recently destroyed the place. He pointed us toward a nearby town called Etalle where we could have lunch. So we went to Etalle and had lunch at Hotel de la Semois. They served us the most wonderful seafood salads we’ve ever had. We also had a few beers, of course. Mousel Pils was rather light and flavorless. Hoegaarden (pronounced who-gar-den) – one of the few Belgian beers available in the States – was a very nice witbier (it’s considered by many to be the gold standard for this beer style). Wouldn’t it be great if Dr. Suess had created a beer-related story called Horton Hears a Hoegaarden? (“We are beer! We are beer! We are beer!”) Orval – also available in the States – was a superb Trappist ale that ended up being our overall favorite beer of our entire beer excursion (Marty’s and my favorite, Mike’s 2nd favorite).

We returned to Rulles and Gregory was still busy, but that was no problem at all since his assistant, Olivier, took us across the street to their tasting house, which is a charming little building with a skeleton key lock. We tasted all three of their beers. The Blonde was sweet, yeasty and very good. The Brune (Brown) didn’t have as much character but was still pretty good. The Triple, our favorite, had lots of body and was sweet but not overly so. It was very smooth too; it went down easier than a sorority girl on ladies night. We bought some of their drinking glasses and 15 bottles of their beer (5 of each kind). Since they are 750-ml bottles, it was the equivalent of more than a case of 12-oz bottles.

Gregory gave us a very informative tour. He brews 1000 liters at a time. The system heats with fire. He uses pils and amber malts for the Blonde; pils, amber, caramel and roasted malts for the Brune; and pale and pils malts for the Triple. He uses mostly American hops (not many hops are grown in Belgium) but kept the particular hop varieties a secret. He mashes at a high temperature in order to get lots of unfermentables. He does not whirlpool the wort after boiling. Instead, he lets it settle and draws off from just above the trub. After chilling, the wort is transferred to a wide fermenter with a rounded bottom that enhances yeast movement. He uses Orval yeast (no wonder his beer is so good) and gets a fresh culture every 3 months. He has a microscope but uses it only for yeast cell counting, not to check for bacteria. The beer ferments at 22°C (72°F). During fermentation he takes some of the kräusen to ferment other batches. At bottling time he adds a bit of fresh yeast and primes with liquid sugar.

After the tour we went back to the tasting house with both Gregory and Olivier to talk and taste some more, and we learned some additional things. The brewery gets lots of visitors. Only about 20% of Belgian beer is bottle-conditioned. The water in that part of the world is acidic and very low in minerals (perhaps the lack of calcium is one reason that Belgian beers aren’t very bitter). Then they gave us something invaluable: a Belgian brewery map! An actual road map with the locations of breweries! Woohoo! According to the map, there are about 140 breweries in Belgium. Boy would I like to spend twenty weeks in Belgium and visit a different brewery each day. Then I’d return to the States for a liver transplant.

Our next stop was Abbey de Notre-Dame d’ Orval. They make the Orval beer that we’re so crazy about. This is one of only 6 authentic Trappist breweries left in the world, and all of them are in Belgium. The other Trappist breweries are Abbey Notre-Dame Saint Remy (Rochefort), Abbey de Notre-Dame de Scourmont (Chimay), Brouwerij der Trappisten van Westmalle (Westmalle), Abdij St-Sixtus (Westvleteren), and Achelse Kluis (Achel).

The Orval abbey was originally built in 1070, but it was destroyed during the French Revolution. It was rebuilt in the late 1920s. In addition to supervising the production of beer, the monks make cheese (they also used to make bread until sometime in the 1990s). There is a shop that’s open to the public, but they do not give brewery tours. We bought 36 bottles of their beer and about a kilo of cheese. They have 2 kinds of cheese: “new” and “old”. We got both. We sat outside the abbey drinking their beer and eating their cheese. It was pure heaven. Being there, consuming their products on a beautiful autumn day was an unforgettable experience. It made no difference that the beer was warm – it was still terrific. The cheeses were great. The “old” cheese had more flavor than the “new” cheese, but they were both very tasty.

We drove westward toward Tourpes, where Brasserie Dupont is located (they make Mike’s favorite beer, Saison Dupont). At 8:55 in the evening we stopped at a bar near Tourpes. The sign in the window said that they closed at 9:00. We went in and started ordering beers. Louwage’s Kriek was a very good cherry-flavored non-lambic beer. Maes was rather light. Duvel – made by Brouwerij Moortgat and available in the States – was an excellent “horsey” beer. Tripel Karmeliet was fairly good. Westmalle Tripel was an absolutely fantastic sweet, horsey, thick beer. (Those monks sure can brew. As Marty observed, “Monk rhymes with drunk!”) Rodenbach was horsey, caramelly and fruity, but too tart for my taste. The bartender was very hospitable, and she kept the place open almost an extra hour for us. Her gorgeous 19-year-old daughter assisting her added very pleasant scenery. American music played in the background. It was an odd combination to savor great Belgian brews while listening to Gangsta’s Paradise.

We found a room at Hotel Coronet, which is located in nearby Péruwelz in a section called Bon Secours (“Good Help”). One guy was both the room clerk and the bartender. After checking in we hung out at the bar with several locals. Our first beer, which was quite good, was made by a local brewpub called Brasserie Caulier, and we made a mental note to visit the place the next day. We had a 12% ABV beer called Bush, which the locals pronounced “Boozh” so as not to be confused with Dubya. Dupont Moinette was excellent. Leffe was a nice unique, sweet yet light beer. Everyone in there smoked except us, and that was the only downside to the evening. The bar patrons and the bartender were friendly and interested in us, despite the fact that they spoke French. (No, really, the vast majority of French people are nice; it is mostly Parisians who are snots.) I learned that not all Belgians like unique, flavorful beers. I told one guy how much I enjoyed Saison Dupont, and he proclaimed how much he hated it as he sipped his Stella Artois.

Our hotel room was small but certainly the right price (cheap). The amenities were adequate, except that we had to dry ourselves with 80-grit towels the size of a bar rag. Also smoke from the bar downstairs wafted up into the room. Wednesday morning we had breakfast in the dining room, and I mention this only because the room contained a 12-liter bottle of blond ale from Brasserie Caulier, which is where we headed right after eating.

By the way, it was quite pleasing to drive by pubs whose beer signs said things like Duvel and Orval instead of Coors and Miller.

We arrived at Brasserie Caulier shortly before it opened. The door was unlocked so we wandered around inside. It has a very nice round wooden bar with a copper tap tower. There is an indoor waterfall and a goldfish pond. It is a fairly large place with lots of wooden tables and chairs. All the flagship beers carry the name Bon Secours on the label. The bottles are a third of a liter in size and have Grolsch-type tops. We snuck a taste of their seasonal Blonde de Noël (10% ABV). It tasted like a triple. We were not able to get a tour because the brewer did not come in on Wednesdays, but we were able to go underneath the place to their warehouse. It had hundreds and hundreds of cases of Belgian beer! There had to be more than 100 kinds, most of which we had never seen. Apparently this place is a distributor for local bars and restaurants. People were driving through, dropping off cases of empty bottles and leaving with full cases. (Europe is very gung-ho on recycling, so beer is usually sold in plastic case boxes. You pay a deposit for the box and bottles, and get reimbursed when you return them.) We spent the better part of an hour walking around, taking pictures, and filling boxes with beer. We were like three kids in a candy store. It was beer heaven. Not only that, we paid less than half of what good Belgian beer costs in the States. We felt almost like criminals as we loaded Marty’s trunk with several cases of more than 30 kinds of beer (most of which have probably never seen American soil), including a dozen Bon Secours beers in a really nice, small, old wooden box.

Our next stop was Brasserie Dupont. This is the place we most wanted to visit, since Saison Dupont (the only one of their beers that I have seen in the U.S.) is a superb brew that Mike and I have enjoyed at my house many times. After taking several pictures of each other standing outside the brewery, we were treated to an impromptu tour. The mashing schedule starts at 45°C (113°F) and goes up to 72°C (162°F). Then it’s sparged with 75°C (167°F) water. The wort is boiled for 1½ hours, centrifuged, cooled, aerated and fermented. The spent grain is fed to cattle. They use the same yeast for all their beers. We got to see their bottling system in action. The bottles are filled with CO2, then with beer. Fresh yeast is added to aid bottle conditioning. The finished product is stored at 23°C (73°F) for 6-8 weeks. Dupont recently changed the look of their labels.

After the tour we were led into the tasting room, which has a cooler with bottles of most of their beers. The guy told us to help ourselves! So we did. They make about 10 different beers, and we tried 5 of them (we would’ve tried more, but some were in 750-ml bottles and we were pretty beered out from the night before). We had a Saison Dupont of course, since that’s the beer that had brought us there. Biere de Miel, an 8% ABV honey beer, had a big honey aroma and a sweet, honey flavor with a yeasty twang. Rédor Pils (their only lager) was kind of sweet for a pilsner. Biolégère, at only 3½% ABV, was like a gueuze but not as tart. Moinette Biologique, one of their 3 organic beers, was quite good. We watched a video which taught us a few things about their operations. The most unusual fact is that they own cows that give milk which is used to make cheese that is aged with beer. After sampling, we left a thank-you note and €5 (€ is the symbol for euro) and then went to the office to buy beer and a drinking glass. They also gave us some free drinking glasses and posters. There is a café across the street from the brewery that serves their beer, but we couldn’t go in because it’s closed on Wednesdays.

We headed north across the countryside into Brussels, parked next to Saint Michael’s Cathedral and walked in. Jesus Christ, that thing is huge! It has gorgeous, elaborate stained glass and a very large pipe organ (I could make a raunchy joke here but it would be just too easy). A plaque written in French said “He who has seen me has seen the father,” which, translated into English, means “Who’s your daddy?” One stained glass window showed someone kneeling in front of a priest in what looks like a scene from a porno flick. The size of the building, plus the magnitude of the statues and stained glass, were quite impressive, and it just goes to show that the people involved in their creation had a lot of time on their hands.

The city has some other interesting features. There is a kind of mall with an arched glass ceiling that makes it look like a tunnel. A square called Grand Place is surrounded by very ornate, beautiful baroque buildings. There is a brewpub right there called Les Brasseurs de la Grand Place, so we had to go in. (The sign outside said “Home made beer”, but I assume it’s made there and not at someone’s house.) They didn’t serve dinner until 6:00 and we got there at 4:30, but we were able to get some vegetable soup (which was very good) and try three of their beers. La Spéciale, their lager, was pretty good for a light lager, although it was a bit sweet. La Blanche, their witbier, had good flavor with some tartness. My favorite was their Brussels Triple, which was lighter than most triples but still very good. The place was mostly empty and nobody was smoking, so it was actually good timing for us.

Brussels, for the most part, is crowded and polluted. Tour books warn you about crime. There are maniac and asshole drivers just like we have over here. Driving sucks because there are no signs before intersections letting you know that a particular street is coming up; by the time you can read the sign at the intersection, it’s too late to turn. The roads are configured in such a way that if you miss a turn, you’re in Bolivia before you can change direction. The signs give you just enough information to get you hopelessly lost. It’s a wonder that the Germans ever found their way in to invade them. In fact, half the casualties suffered by the Germans in Belgium during WWII were the result of driving around until they ran out of gas and then freezing to death.

After finding our way out of Brussels purely by trial and error (mostly error), we headed south to Bouillon. We pulled into town after dark with no lodging reservation and found a place to stay, just as we had done the previous two nights. We had a late dinner at a local restaurant. The menu was completely in French, which presented a problem for me since I’m French-challenged. I’d be stupefied by items such as “Croquettes au crevettes grises sur salade variée”. That’s shrimp salad. Luckily Marty knows French and we were able to order something other than snails smothered in two-stroke oil.

The place we stayed at, Hotel de la Poste, had a nice wooden interior. The clerk had her dog (named Clovis) in there with her. She (Clovis) sniffed and scratched at my pant leg, and it occurred to me that it was because I had gone horseback riding in those pants just before I left the States, and they (the pants) smelled like horse. Either that or I had soiled myself. Mike and Marty called their respective wives, paying a total of about $30 for less than five minutes of conversation. Marty and I sat in the bar and had two beers: Duvel (8.5% ABV) and Godefroy (7% ABV), the latter of which was rather sweet. The bar had a very nice, old look to it, with cushy furniture and lots of dark-colored wood.

I got a good night’s sleep, except that I woke up a few times with a burning sensation in my skin. I thought that I had picked up a bug somewhere along the way. Could it have been the gyro I had in Brussels? The fish dinner I had in Bouillon? Chicken pox? Luckily it eventually passed.

Thursday morning we were able to see the town more clearly. It’s surrounded by beautiful mountains and a castle. It has very pretty stone bridges that cross a river. It’s very charming, with lots of little shops, apartments and narrow streets. The satellite dishes on some of the apartment roofs reminded us that this was not 1930. We tried to get breakfast but all they served in the morning was bread and pastry. No wonder the French are so small.

We had a 10:00 appointment at Brasserie de Bouillon, which is tucked in the back of a store called Le Marché de Nathalie. The brewer was unable to make it because he had been called up by the Belgian Army Reserves, but his wife Nathalie (who I assume the store is named after) gave us a brewery tour – in French. I was able to understand most of it since I know all about the brewing process and I could follow her hand gestures and Marty was able to fill in any gaps. They do a 50°C (122°F) protein rest and raise the mash temperature for three hours. They do 23 different recipes with different labels for various nearby towns. They get their yeast from Orval, and they use the same yeast for all their beers. They add a little yeast at bottling time, and the amount is different for each beer. Since they don’t have a liquor license or a bathroom, Nathalie was not able to give us a tasting. They have lots of Belgian beers for sale, and once again we found ourselves happily prancing along, grabbing beers and filling boxes. We paid an average of about $1.50 per beer -- half of what we’d pay in the States if we could even find these beers here. Nathalie also threw in 3 bottles of the brewery’s holiday beer.

Side note: the store sells Celis White, which I thought was made only in the U.S. Well, there is a Belgian version too. The label had a picture of a cowboy on a horse, which of course is meant to impress foreigners with the American look and feel.

We left Bouillon heading east on winding roads in beautiful autumn weather past gorgeous mountains and quaint villages with stone houses. A few bottles of Orval made the day even nicer. We stopped in the town of Athus with the intention of having lunch at a brewpub called Trois Brasseurs. Unfortunately they didn’t open until 4:00, and it was 12:30. So we ate at a Chinese take-out place (the guy let us eat in there even though it’s not a restaurant). We bought two kinds of cold beer at a nearby store and had them with our lunch. One was Ciney Blonde and the other was Ciney Brown. They were both good but I liked the Brown better. The food was very good too.

Bye-Bye Belgium

Next we drove 4 hours to Stuttgart. It wasn’t a bad drive because it was scenic. Interestingly, there was no border patrol, so we didn’t know exactly when we entered Luxembourg or Germany. The Autobahn was fun because sometimes we’d get up to 120 mph. Some people drive “Smart” cars, which are tiny little things that look like the front end of a minivan. They’re painted with colorful designs, I suppose to make them more visible. They run on battery, and when it peters out, a gas engine kicks on and recharges it.

When we arrived at Marty and Michelle’s place, we immediately unloaded the 7 or 8 cases of beer into their larder, threw several bottles into the fridge, and spent the evening enjoying them along with Thai take-out. Chimay (blue label, which is their strongest beer) was quite malty and full-bodied. Bon Secours Saaz was fairly good and semi-sweet. Bon Secours Blonde (8% ABV) was similar to the Saaz but better. Bon Secours Brune (also 8% ABV) was good and plummy. Westmalle Dubbel was plummy, caramelly and good, but not as good as Westmalle Tripel, so we drank a bottle of the latter for good measure. We also had some Orval. We had a German beer as well: Andechser Doppelbock Dunkel, made by Andechs, which is one of the more popular German breweries. It was sweet, malty, smooth and good. These beers were a big switch from what we used to drink in our youth (mojo out of a trashcan).

Friday morning the three of us went to the local military base (Michelle works at another base, which gives Marty access) and lifted weights, did some sprints, and felt the effects of four straight days of drinking. We came back and had a Saison Dupont and a Brasserie de Bouillon La Spéciale Fêtes (8½% ABV), which was spicy and slightly tart. Then Michelle joined us after she got out of work and the four of us took off for Oktoberfest.

I knew that the beer at Oktoberfest wouldn’t be great, especially when compared to the Belgian beer we had been drinking, but there were other things that held an allure for me, such as the ambience, the singing, the funny outfits, and the authentic German food. So, armed with low beer expectations, we set out for the world’s biggest beer party. It was a gorgeous sunny, dry, 70-something-degree day. There was beautiful scenery along the Autobahn: countryside and mountains packed with trees. We saw a traffic jam going in the other direction that went on for miles. Although the traffic moves very fast, it can take hours to clean up accidents. The Germans call this type of traffic backup a “stau”.

24 Hours in Munich

Downtown Munich is crowded like any other big city. We made our way to Hotel Haberstock and checked in. All the hotels double their prices during Oktoberfest because they completely fill up. Michelle had to call 30 places to find a room, for which we paid €222 ($266). After unloading our stuff we walked about 15 blocks to the fest. There were lots of stores and restaurants along the way, with the occasional nudie bar (Germans aren’t as repressed as Americans are, so strip joints are sprinkled in with all the other places of business instead of being outcast to one seedy area). A big drunk guy coming back from the fest bumped into me. We found our way by following the hordes of people, some men in lederhosen and some women in busty attire.

Oktoberfest has a lot more than beer. There are stomach-turning rides, food, games … it’s more like a carnival than a beer fest. The beer “tents” are huge wooden structures that each hold thousands of people. I’m told that every year they are set up before the fest and taken down afterwards. I’ve heard that in years past they used actual tents and that the event was held in a big field. Well, we walked on pavement, and the beer buildings had actual floors.

We went into the Löwenbräu tent but could not find a seat. It was almost completely packed, and the seats that weren’t taken were reserved. Nobody was leaving; people find a seat early and do not budge (except for bathroom breaks) until they go home. It was horribly smoky too – apparently it is a law that you must smoke at Oktoberfest. We left and went to the Paulaner tent. Same story, except that we saw two troublemakers get wrestled to the ground and handcuffed by security. There were tables just outside the beer hall, and we were able to squeeze in. It was still very smoky, as I swear we were the only ones not holding burning tobacco between our fingers, but it wasn’t as bad as it was indoors. We each got a liter of beer. There is no choice in beer; each brewery serves only its own beer at its tent, and it is a light lager. The giant mugs hold more than a liter, and there is always a big head above the liter mark. We paid €6.75 (more than $8) for each liter, and I didn’t think it was worth it: the beer was light and a bit undercarbonated and not very flavorful. But I wasn’t surprised. Anywhere that huge quantities of beer are sold, you know the quality won’t be very high.

The people around us were all very friendly. We struck up conversations with a lot of them. Marty, Michelle and Mike were able to translate German for me, but most people spoke at least a little English so I was able to communicate quite a bit on my own. I told the German guy next to me that I didn’t like how smoky the place was. He looked at me like I had 2 heads and exclaimed, “Non-smoker?” as if I had just told him that I didn’t like beer. He also laughed when I told him that I had gone to Belgium specifically to drink Belgian beer. A lot of Germans like to think that their beer is the best in the world, and many people in other countries believe this myth. Actually it’s a matter of personal preference, so who is to say who makes the best beer? Anyway, people periodically clinked their mugs together in toasts, and we did the same. We ordered food to slow down the alcohol absorption. The wurst and the kraut were very good. There were giant pretzels almost a foot square, but while they looked impressive, they had no flavor except for the salt.

After a while we got up to see if we could find seats inside a tent. By now it was about 6:45 PM and it was impossible to even walk into a tent. We weaved our way past lots of ugly, drunk people to the Hofbräu tent. After about 15 minutes we were able to find seats at an outdoor table, and that was just fine by me because of the smoke issue. The speaker played “YMCA” by the Village People and other American music. We ordered liters, and the beer tasted suspiciously like the suds we had consumed at the Paulaner tent. Well, it wasn’t about the beer for us; we had a great time talking to the people around us. We met folks from Italy, Germany, Costa Rica, the U.S. and I forget where else. We tried to order food, but they had run out. All that was left were those bland, white flour pretzels. Every so often we’d join in for a chorus of “Ziggy zocky ziggy zocky hoy hoy hoy” and then “Ein prosit”. We spent a few hours here, socializing at what could be best described as a giant international fraternity party. “I see drunk people!” could be the international motto.

I would say that more than half of the festivalgoers were 30 years of age or younger. Quite a different story from Oktoberfests of past decades, whose photos show mostly middle-aged and older folks. I suppose that Europe had its own baby boom after WWII, and now there are a lot of children of baby boomers in their 20s. Also, while there were a lot of Germans there, most people were not German (at least they didn’t look German). People come from all over the world in large numbers to experience this festival.

At the end of the evening we were able to get inside one of the tents and witness the end of a day-long marathon of drinking, singing, smoking and peeing. Most people were standing up by now, except the really drunk ones whose faces were in direct contact with the tables. Afterward we stumbled back to the hotel, with Marty, Mike and I pushing each other around and Michelle pretending she didn’t know us.

Saturday morning we had breakfast, checked out and walked around. We went to the Marienplatz. There were lots of stores, stands, cafés and churches, and a few street performers. We saw the Glockenspiel, which is a huge clock. At certain hours of the day it does about 10 or 15 minutes of bell ringing and its figurines move. It might not be very exciting to us in our modern world, but it was probably impressive before the internet, television and the wheel. The Glockenspiel is built into a large building that functions as City Hall. It was the same baroque/gothic look as the buildings at Grand Place.

There was an ad sign that said “schmuck”, which in German means “jewelry”. So people have been shouting “jewelry” at me all my life!

Approximately 172% of the people in Munich smoke. Babies come out of the womb with cigarettes in their mouths. No matter where you are on the streets, you’re breathing in smoke. I think they pump it up through the street grates in order to make sure you get your daily requirement of tar and nicotine. That morning I had opened the window in our hotel room and smoke wafted in. Even some of the waiters in restaurants were smoking.

We had lunch at the Hofbräuhouse. Like Oktoberfest, it was terribly smoky inside, so we sat in the courtyard where the smoke was diminished just enough so that it only gave you bronchitis instead of cancer. The bathroom was the best-smelling room in the place. (By the way, when I went in there to drain the dragon, there was a female bathroom attendant. Nobody seemed to mind that she was standing 5 feet away from the urinals.) We ordered a liter of Hofbräu’s dark beer, which was a little better than the light stuff they served us at Oktoberfest. The courtyard had lots of horse chestnut trees that dropped occasional chestnuts on tables and people when the wind blew.

Back to Clean Air

We returned to Stuttgart. Michelle had to go into work while we men took a bike ride and then drank beer with a couple that came over for a visit. We started with Rulles Brune and Orval. Next was Brasserie Familiale Huyghe’s Delirium Tremens (9% ABV), which packed a lot of great flavor for a mostly clear, light-colored beer. Petrus Triple had a horsey, tart aroma similar to that of Saison Dupont, and a nice, smooth flavor with just the right amount of sweetness and a little horseyness. We went to sleep with visions of Belgian beers dancing in our heads.

Sunday morning we worked out again. I had developed an allergy to something (probably pollen), and thankfully Marty and Michelle had Claritin in the house (pharmacies are closed on Sundays). I had never taken this medication before, and let me tell you, it really worked for me. It cleared my sinuses so I could taste beer, and it didn’t make me drowsy. Then we went to the base where Michelle works, bought a case of cold Hoegaarden at the PX (the only place in Germany where we were able to buy non-German beer), and drank some while waiting for Michelle to get out of work. We all returned home because rain had moved in, and we spent the rest of the day and evening playing board games, watching old movies and drinking Belgian beer. We had some of our old favorites, including Saison Dupont, Hoegaarden, Bon Secours Blonde and Rulles Triple. Brasserie de Bouillon “Airborne”, a brown ale, was a bit roasty and not our favorite. Bon Secours Ambrée had a nice earthy Belgian aroma and flavor. We capped off the evening’s beer drinking with Lindemans Framboise (a 2.5% ABV raspberry lambic); Lindemans Kriek (a 3.5% ABV cherry lambic); and Lindemans Cassis (a 3.5% ABV currant lambic), all of which I’ve had in the States. The first two are very popular even with non-drinkers, including my wife and my mother; the third is more tart but the flavor has grown on me and I like it now. These beers were in smaller bottles than I’ve seen in the States, and they had only crown caps instead of corks under caps as found in the U.S.

Monday morning Marty, Mike and I went to Burg Teck, an old castle on top of a mountain. We drove part way up and parked. The air was wonderfully fresh, and the aroma of leaf decomposition was a bit minty. We had packed a case of Belgian beer in the trunk to keep us company. Caracole (8% ABV), made by Brasserie Caracole, was very good and malty. Kwak (8% ABV), made by Brouwerij Bosteels, was good too. Then we walked about a mile up the mountain. Near the top was a really neat cove. We climbed up into it and got a great view of the land below. Then we proceeded to the top for even better views. It was nice how there were towns here and there with lots of land in between, in contrast with the U.S. where developers cut down trees haphazardly in order to build subdivisions and malls anywhere they can. The castle was probably built around the 12th century. There is a restaurant there, but all that was available food-wise at the time was lentil soup. We each got a bowl, and we drank some Malteser Weissbier Hefe Dunkel, which I didn’t like very much. We ate outside at a picnic table. The guy who sold us the soup and beer came outside and talked with us awhile, and he gave us a free bottle of beer. Afterward we walked back to the car, sat around and had a few more Belgians. Abbaye des Rocs (9% ABV), made by Brasserie de l’Abbaye des Rocs, was sweet, tasty, fruity and quite good. Troublette, made by Brasserie Caracole, had a nice cidery aroma and flavor. By the way, before you start thinking that the three of us are just a bunch of drunks (too late!), we were splitting these beers, i.e., we wouldn’t each drink a whole one.

We drove to the Ritter Sport chocolate shop & museum and bought a lot of chocolate. On the way home we drank Brugse Tripel (8.2% ABV), which was fairly good. At home we had Abbaye Tongerlo Dubbel Bruin, which was clear and unremarkable. Cuvée de Bouillon Blonde had a nice fruity, spicy aroma and flavor, but there was an immediate tart aftertaste.

The four of us, plus Marty and Michelle’s kids, went out for dinner, and we had to drive to several restaurants in order to find one that was open because a lot of them are closed on Monday nights. We ate at a place called Sommerhof and had several kinds of German food, including maultaschen (noodles and eggs), schnitzel (breaded, fried pork), and spätzle (noodles). We also had Mechthild Bernsteinforbenes Lagerbier, which was dark and malty but tasted just okay, like most other German beer. By the way, when you order a beer in Germany, they pour part of it into your glass, making it foam, and leave the rest in the bottle.

After dinner we returned home for our last night together before Mike and I headed back across the pond. Trappistes Rochefort (11.3% ABV), made by Abbey Notre-Dame Saint Remy, was a smooth brown ale but did not have a lot of flavor for its high alcohol content. Lucifer, a golden ale made by Riva S.A. (that’s all the info the label gave), was light and clean. Saison 1900, made by Brasserie Levebvre, had a good aroma with a good light, refreshing taste with some tart aftertaste. Brasserie Caracole Saxo Blonde had a nice sweet, fruity, spicy aroma and flavor.

Paradise Lost

3:00 AM Tuesday morning. We’re tired. It’s cold. We have to leave. Shit.

Marty drives us for two hours to Frankfurt. We stand in line for our boarding passes while people smoke nearby. You know, they ought to just sell smoke-scented shampoo so we can all reek without having to actually inhale fumes. This time British Airways does not weigh our carry-on bags, so we could have brought more beer home than we did. Germany seems to be more interested in security than how much baggage you bring, and I think this is good. (If airlines weigh anything, it should be the passengers. I mean, do you want a 350-pounder sitting next to the emergency exit?) They check our bodies with a metal detector wand. Pretty thoroughly, I might add. They examine me in places that had previously been explored only by my proctologist and my 3rd grade gym teacher.

We wait in a nonsmoking terminal, which of course smells like smoke. This was a last ditch effort to give us emphysema. We hadn’t been assaulted enough in bars, on the streets, and at Oktoberfest; the airport had to pump a final dose of tobacco fumes into us in order to remind us not to live in Europe.

On the first leg of our flight I get a middle seat, which, as you know, is an experience we all look forward to. Nothing illustrates how we feel toward our fellow man better than how we react when we find out that we will spend several hours in a confined space between two other people. Anyway, Mike and I squeeze into our seats, which are about the size of a standard birdcage, and discover that they do not recline. This is an especially interesting feature when the seat in front of you is touching your tonsils. The seats did have movable headrests. Well, the window and aisle seats did, anyway. The middle seats were not equipped with such a feature. Of course not. You’re already in a middle seat that doesn’t recline, so why would you expect even the barest of amenities? As I sat there envying Inquisition victims, I tried to think of ways in which the airline could have made me even more uncomfortable. For example, by having knives come out of the seat and stab me. Oh, and did I mention that the armrests did not flip up? This added a level of convenience for those of us who can’t seem to find enough time in our everyday lives to bang our kneecaps.

We landed in London for a simply wonderful 4-hour layover. Yessir, there’s nothing better when you’re so tired and sleepless that zombies flee from you in terror than sitting around a huge and boring place on a gray, depressing day. We wandered through various shops, taking note of anything out of the ordinary in order to fool ourselves that we were alive. One store had a bottle of 1947 Château Cheval Blanc for a mere ?10,000 ($16,000). I wanted to find something good to eat. There were coffee, donuts, croissants, burgers, caviar, chocolate and smoked salmon, but I couldn’t find a friggin’ bagel. The “duty free” shops were pretty transparent. They don’t charge tax, which makes you think you’re getting a good deal until you realize that they more than compensate by jacking up the prices. I perused a few bookstores. The 2004 Guinness Book of World Records was interesting. Do you know the world record for the longest piece of spaghetti ejected out one’s nostril in a single blow? 7½ inches. Isn’t that great? All this time people have been running fast and lifting lots of weight in order to set world records, when all they had to do was turn food into boogers.

As I was boarding the connecting flight, an airline employee noticed that my bag seemed heavy. She picked it up, declared it too heavy, and checked it as luggage. This is exactly what I had been trying to avoid. I had never checked baggage in my life, due to the extraordinary IQ of baggage handlers, not to mention the tender loving care they give passengers’ luggage, and so my flight to the States was not only sleepless but full of worry, since I had precious beer in my bag. Well, the beer gods smiled on me that day, because the bottles managed to remain intact despite having been thrown around and spending seven hours in a depressurized chamber. All that the apes who handled my bag managed to break was one of the drinking glasses I had purchased, but jeez, that was a bargain compared to what could have happened.


By now I have fully recovered from jet lag, eight straight days of drinking, 66 kinds of beer, and 75 pounds of tobacco smoke. I have lots of nice memories and several bottles of great Belgian beer that none of the local liquor stores carry. I hope to go back next year and spend at least a week in Belgium. If you want to taste the world’s greatest beers, visit neat little breweries and be treated like royalty, then Belgium is the place to go. It is one of the world’s best-kept secrets.